Calif. Governor Race: America's Quietest Campaign?

Calif. Governor Race: America's Quietest Campaign?

By Adam O'Neal - October 21, 2014

Across blue, red, and purple states, nearly a dozen governors are in danger of losing their jobs -- making 2014 an unusually challenging year for incumbents. Consequently, these endangered politicians have traveled aggressively throughout their states, raised and spent huge sums of money, and captured (good and bad) headlines on a daily basis.

And then there’s California’s Jerry Brown.

The 76-year-old Democrat -- who is pursuing an unprecedented fourth term -- has waged one of the most low-key gubernatorial races in the country. He hasn’t run any ads explicitly touting his re-election. The campaign spent a little more than $400,000 in the first nine months of the year and has nearly $24 million cash on hand. Brown agreed to one debate with his opponent, Republican Neel Kashkari, and it took place on opening night of the National Football League season. Brown’s lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average is 19.5 percentage points.

“It’d be hard to be more aggressive than I am right now. I’m doing stuff all the time,” Brown told RCP during a June interview. “To me, the best campaign is the best governing. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Brown’s campaign is inextricably tied to policy goals. His only television ad, which began airing earlier this month, promotes two ballot propositions dealing with water infrastructure and the state’s rainy day fund -- not exactly sexy, campaign season issues. And the spot doesn’t even directly allude to Brown’s re-election effort.

And despite the governor’s high approval rating, he hasn’t done much to help Democrats win back the legislative super-majority they lost after scandals rocked the California Senate. (Brown said in 2013 that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference if Democrats lost their super-majority.)

Meanwhile, Kashkari -- who has poured millions of dollars of his own money into the campaign, frenetically traveled the state, and regularly appeared on radio and television -- has done everything he can to generate interest in the race.

The former Treasury official and Goldman Sachs banker has run a guerilla campaign filled with stunts to garner attention. He posed as a homeless person to supposedly better understand the needs of California’s poorest. After Democrats in the legislature approved a ban on plastic grocery bags, Kashkari delivered packages of paper bags to the state capitol. He constantly tweets and engages with detractors and supporters. In one attention-grabbing ad, he rescues a drowning child.

“If he thinks that voters are going to get energized by Prop. 1 and Prop. 2, he’s kidding himself,” Kashkari asserted, referencing the ballot propositions. “He backed the [teacher’s] unions and betrayed the kids. I just want everybody in the state to know what he’s done.”

Responding to criticism that the drowning ad was over the top, Kashkari said, “I sleep like a baby. I’m on the side of angels.”

The Brown camp has repeatedly denounced the ad.

The governor’s vegetables-only campaign, and Kashkari’s aggressive media and speaking schedule, have done little to fire up California’s voters. Top political scientists told RCP they wouldn’t be surprised by a record low turnout this year.

Asked to gauge the public’s interest in the election, University of California, Irvine political science professor Mark Petracca deadpanned, “Is there a gubernatorial race?”

He continued, “It actually wouldn’t surprise me if this turnout rate dropped below the rate you would normally see during a presidential primary.”

Claremont McKenna College professor John J. Pitney Jr. said it’s “the most low-key gubernatorial race I’ve ever seen. People who have lived here even longer have confirmed that.” Pitney predicted that less than half of registered voters would cast ballots.

Outside of their one debate, Brown has chosen not to engage his opponent -- just as he’s tried to stay above the partisan fray during his second stint in Sacramento (irking Democrats and Republicans).

“This is a very different person. I think one of the reasons Brown has been so successful is because of his age,” said Petracca. “Given his age, he doesn’t have any further political ambition” -- the sort of ambition that led him to defeats, two of them humiliating, in three runs at the presidency. Brown has also displayed a sense of humor that was rarely in evidence during his first go-around as governor in the 1970s and 1980s.

After Kashkari dropped off the paper bags, Brown’s pet corgi responded on Twitter, “Thanks for the bags Neel! I'll make good use of them on my walks.”

Kashkari’s giant brown Newfoundland, who also has a Twitter account, shot back, “Plastic is much better for walks of course. The paper bags will be good doggy bags for your upcoming restaurant visits.”

Brown is still sitting on more than $20 million -- a huge sum even in California. And his campaign likely won’t spend a significant amount between now and Election Day. But it’s hard to imagine the money won’t be spent eventually.

Some in the Washington press corps have welcomed the idea of Brown -- who lost an extremely heated 1992 presidential primary to Bill Clinton -- challenging the 42nd president’s wife for the Democratic nomination in 2016. An annoyed Brown has repeatedly denied any interest in doing so.

And the re-election cash wouldn’t necessarily help, either: “He can’t transfer state money to federal accounts,” said Rick Hasen, a campaign finance and elections law expert.

Instead, Brown has hinted that he’d like to use the money to promote his policies as he approaches the lame duck phase of his governorship.

“There may be things to be done that will involve a ballot measure,” Brown recently told the Los Angeles Times, though he didn’t disclose which policies he would back on a ballot initiative.  “I do think having a credible war chest will overcome whatever infirmities lame-duck governors might ordinarily suffer from.”

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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